February 15, 2011

SOME OF HIS BEST FRIENDS ARE CHRISTIANS:

The Gentleman From Virginia: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in U.S. history, hails not from the urban melting pot but from a Southern, explicitly Christian America (Allison Hoffman, Feb 8, 2011, Tablet)

Cantor often describes himself as “a minority within a minority”—a Jew from the South, and a conservative Republican whose views are sharply at odds with those of the predominantly Democratic Jewish electorate—and this allows him to occasionally affect a self-deprecating, and sympathetic, underdog quality. He grew up in Richmond’s historic but tiny Jewish community, and in a solidly Republican household when Virginia was still Yellow Dog Democrat country. His parents sent him and his two brothers to the Collegiate School, a prestigious private academy that featured annual Christmas pageants, but they kept a kosher home. He was bar mitzvahed at the city’s main Conservative synagogue, where his own children also had their bar and bat mitzvahs. Cantor keeps kosher at work—his Democratic predecessor, Steny Hoyer, got him egg-salad sandwiches when they met for a rare bipartisan lunch in late January—and at home, where his mother-in-law supervises the kitchen. When I met Cantor in his new, eggnog-yellow office late last month, I asked him whether he would have preferred to grow up in a place where being Jewish wasn’t quite so exotic. “I think it’s given me a real appreciation—” he began, and then he paused. He looked directly at me and started again: “You know, we live in a Christian country.”

Since the beginning of the year, Cantor has become the de facto public face of a party that has grown steadily more religious and more suburban in the two decades since he began working his way up its ranks. In Young Guns, the conservative manifesto Cantor co-wrote last year with his House colleagues Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan, the congressman drew an explicit analogy between their churchgoing and his own synagogue attendance. “I pray on Saturday with a Southern accent,” Cantor wrote. “Paul and Kevin go to church on Sunday and talk to God without dropping their Gs.” What set him apart growing up—his distance from the heavily Jewish cities that now serve as metonyms for liberal elitism, his native ease with the Christian references so many Republican partisans use to define their political values—has become his passport into the heart of the GOP establishment.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 15, 2011 5:53 AM
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